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False Icons: An Interview with John Bechdel
An Interview with John Bechdel
It's hard for fans of Prong, Fear Factory, Killing Joke and Murder Inc. to match a face with the name John Bechdel (False Icons, Ascension of the Watchers). What these fans will quickly come to realize is, John Bechdel happens to be the linchpin that helped these phenomenal bands sound their best, especially during live performances. He's spent over 15 years touring and recording as a keyboard player and programmer for these legendary groups.
Born in August of 1964 and raised in a very small, serene, country town in central PA, John was raised by five generations of morticians; both parents were teachers, and his father had three occupations. He was always surrounded by music, including an extensive record collection belonging to his father. His siblings and mother all played piano, and by the age of five, in the midst of piano lessons and records spinning, John knew he wanted to play music. Even before that, John was drawn in by some of music's greatest: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, as well as classical music.
In the '60s and '70s, isolation was no stranger in towns like this one. Attending an experimental elementary school where there were no tests or grades, John was exposed to what most average middle class folks would consider a very unique, yet impressive upbringing. His family indulged in an enriched lifestyle including antique collecting, and even resided in an old antique Victorian home, which his father restored. They were constantly surrounded by books, literature, art, and theatre, and would go to New York and D.C. to visit museums. At the age of 11, John had a rare encounter with the late John Lennon where he got within inches of the legend and managed to talk him into giving him an autograph (something Lennon was not particularly known to do) on a napkin, which he still has today.
But John felt the urge to steer away from the comfort of his native PA. After the tragic death of his father, he finished high school and, at the age of 18, moved away to attend Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. There he studied electronic music, and had the freedom to discover an amazing yet rare way to earn a college degree. Being self-motivated was the only way to succeed in the independent school.
Nearly two decades later, John Bechdel has kept his independent spirit intact, and has a history of trials, tribulations, and unforgettable journeys with some of industrial's best bands. Not to mention a brave foot in fatherhood, which stops many men from pursuing their lifelong dreams. But not John Bechdel. Though he likes to think he humbly lives like the average man, he will be remembered as a legend.
Tell us about your first experience in a band.
I was friends with Martin Atkins (PiL, Killing Joke, Invisible Records) who was actually the first "famous" person I'd ever worked with. After Atkins left PiL, he asked me to play in his band Brian Brain, which was first formed in the '70s. I tried out, and within days of my joining, we were doing shows at the Limelight and The Cat Club. It was funky, groovy music. We had Margot Olivaria, the original bass player of The Go-Go's with us. We did little tours, and that was my first experience traveling with a band.
How did you become a part of Ascension of the Watchers?
Well, after Fear Factory visited my home, Burton took an interest in my studio and said "Wow, I see why you live here." He ended up moving to PA after the Digimortal tour, and we recorded The Watchers, which I produce and co-write for. Burton came in with a guitar and a delay and started playing these guitar ideas, which I built songs off of. They became whole songs, and now we're going to add live instrumentation to it. It's definitely the highest profile project done in my studio thus far.
What were your expectations?
I thought it was going to sound like Fear Factory, but within the first five minutes, I knew it wasn't going to sound like that at all (laughs). I didn't expect what he was doing, which was something more melodic. It's not metal at all.
Why the name False Icons, and how did the band come about?
When I get ideas, I scribble them on little bits of paper or Post-Its, and I collect them. It was somewhere around 1996, the words "False Icons" came into my mind, and I thought it would be a good name for a song. So it sat around, and nothing really happened with it, just like many other bits of paper in a pile somewhere.
My wife and I had just moved from the city and bought the piece of land we now live on. One night, we stopped to get coffee at a convenient store and decided to ask the cashier how he liked living here. He said it kind of sucked (laughs) and he was moving to Columbus, Ohio. I mentioned that I just went through there with Prong, and he froze and his eyes bulged out. He then reached under the counter and pulled out a box of CDs that were all Prong. All the independent releases and practically everything Prong did was in this box. I didn't expect him to know who Prong was, nevermind have everything ever released by them. He knew Brian Broadt and told him what happened, and next thing you know, he's down at a Danzig show Prong was opening up and recognized me and pointed me out. Brian didn't do anything until he bought a CD called Abstinence, a project I'm a part of with my name on the front sticker. He then called my home and spoke to my wife while I was on tour. He had a band and wanted to bring over his tape, so when I came home, I invited him over and we immediately hit it off and started playing music together. This was in 1995, and I was fresh out of Prong and just beginning to write my own music. He'd come over and write stuff, and one night while I was out walking my dog, I heard him putting together some ideas. I came in and added some beats, started programming rhythms, and over the next couple of days, I absorbed the music that he'd started articulating, adding to it, and integrating with it. That first track marked the beginning and became the track "False Icons."
What is the status of False Icons right now?
The track "Decay" was at #6 on the Internet industrial charts before it moved to #17, so it's been bumping around the top 20 for some time now. We put "Into the Emptiness" up first and hit the top 20. It feels like we are finally reaching out to the world. We've gotten fans from all age groups from all over the world!
What are your roles in False Icons?
I play guitar, keyboards, and programming, drum programming, and even bass. I'm the main lyricist and vocalist. Rob Blankenship plays bass, and is the other vocalist with the heavy, hard-rock kind of tones. I do a lot of vocal harmonizing with melodic/high/low tones. The problem with harmonizing live is a different trick, though, so I have a harmonizer now that will do the harmonies for me. It's amazing.
You can do anything you put your mind to with the right tools.
I think that's what gave me the confidence with the harmonies. I wasn't able to pitch perfectly every time, so I use my natural voice with the harmonizer to totally lock in. I didn't say "hey, I want to be the frontman of a band!," it was more like I want and need to make this music, so I need to figure out how to make it. If I'm the guy singing and playing guitar and stuff, I need to figure out a way to do all that comfortably. I've thought about playing keyboards, but I think it might be difficult singing and playing keys.
What is your favorite False Icons song?
I'd have to say "Decay." It seems to be the definitive False Icons song. It has a little bit of everything in there.
What does all this mean to you, being where you are now in life?
We all really feel strongly about this project. It's not that we want to have this band to get away from it all, this is at our core being, and our desire to make this music is something we have to do. It's what keeps us going. When Mark Panek, our drummer, came in, he wasn't just in it for the gig, he was totally absorbed in the music. At first, I thought we could just have the drum tracks programmed and have some guy hitting drum pads (laughs). It wasn't going to work like that at all. That's how we feel about the whole thing: It can't be half-ass. Mark nailed it on the first tryout. That was a sure sign we were going to do well with a live drummer. We have at least 16 songs now, and we're like a family. You're either in it or you aren't, and we want to remain a little mysterious. There are so many bands out there with too many pictures of themselves, talking about themselves to a such degree that who really cares what you think anymore? Just because you're a musician, you think people really care what your views are? It's cool to talk about your influences and what you think and all, but talking about the music is the most important.
At least you can say, "I was there. I did this."
Yeah, it's been a strange, yet interesting path, coming from a small town to discover music, play music, and do all of this the way I have. There were a lot of sacrifices to get to each point, it wasn't all a breeze. There'll always be something new to learn in music. And I'll always be in it to explore.